"Christian" Child Abuse
By Rev. Marie M. Fortune
From "Working Together," Fall, 1983

The news article "He Beats Up Kids for Glory of God" describing the death of a child in a religious commune is only the most recent revelation in the local and national media of death or severe injury inflicted on children. The brutal details of the incidents are disturbing. But what is most disturbing is the number of recent cases of child abuse have occurred in an explicitly religious context. "Christian punishment" which results in the death of a child cannot be dismissed as the activity of an aberrant religious cult or simply the result of an individual's pathology. The Christian community can remain silent no longer hoping that each case will be the last and that no one will notice that those who are brutalizing the children in these situations are Christians -- and are using their Christianity to justify their acts.

Not all child abusers are Christians, and not all Christians are child abusers. But a surprisingly high number of reported child abuse cases occur in Christian families. Moreover, the abuser often bases the justification for their behavior on Christianity. A father, when confronted by state child abuse prevention workers, resisted their assistance and said: "What do you mean I can't beat my child? I'm a Christian." This Christian father who had paddled his son with such force that he caused injury, had not been confronted by his church, had not repented, had not sought help to control his anger and violence. He had been taught that his responsibility as a parent involves the regular use of corporal punishment and used it to the extent that it was abusive. Herein lies the problem.

The Christian community must face these facts and determine why circumstances of severe child abuse are occurring in Christian contexts. We must challenge the teachings (that children need corporal punishment) which have been adhered to so long that they have come to be associated with orthodox Christian belief. This mistaken belief leads, in too many cases, to child abuse.

There are two sources of the theological justification for the use of corporal punishment. First, the belief held by some conservative Christians that children are evil, i.e., that because of Original Sin children are by their very nature evil beings. Thus, beatings are regarded as a way of chastising a child so as to bring him/her to righteousness. Related to this theological underpinning is the "spare the rod and spoil the child" theology frequently invoked by Christian child abusers. The most common understanding of this scripture is that all children need to be hit with a rod in order not to be spoiled. Both these theological assertions are distortions of the Biblical tradition.

The quasi-religious teaching which reinforces Christian child abuse is the hierarchy of power relationships in families. One of its most famous contemporary proponents is Bill Gothard, developer of the Basic Youth Conflict Seminars. Gothard teaches that women and children should submit to the authority of the father. Ironically, he offers as an image of appropriate parental roles the father as hammer and the mother as chisel. The child is to be shaped by parental tools. That this imbalance of power and perpetuation of male supremacy in the family is part of the problem is undeniable. An imbalance of power creates the conditions for abuse of power and authority which can lead to the abuse and exploitation of children.

Jesus referred to children as those to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:14) He rebuked the disciples who attempted to keep children from him and lifted children up as a model for adults who wished to understand the truth. His extraordinary behavior occurred in a context in which children were considered the property of the patriarchal father. These are hardly actions of one who saw children as inherently evil and in need of chastisement. Paul's insight regarding the commandment to honor father and mother is also surprising. He repeats the commandment, then cautions parents to refrain from angering the children. He instructs them to bring the children up in the "discipline and instruction of the Lord". This is a significant corrective given, most likely, in response to what Paul perceived as abuses of the power and authority of the parental roles.

What is the "discipline of the Lord"? What form should Christian disciplining of children take? What are our responsibilities as parents and caregivers to children? Unfortunately, this discussion has been posed only in extremes: either permissiveness leading to a spoiled child or corporal punishment leading to a righteous child. There are other options. Parenting is not as simple as the "permissiveness/punishment argument" makes it seem. Most parents can attest to this fact. Children need guidance and discipline as they grow and mature. They need information in a context appropriate to their age and ability. They need to learn values. For their good and the good of those around them they need to have limits set for them. But they also need to be respected as persons and protected from potential abuse and exploitation. They need to know they are loved and wanted in their family and their community. They need to know that God loves and cares for them.

The belief that children need discipline and guidance is part of fundamental wisdom of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Paul understood this as did the writer of Proverbs. But the belief that corporal punishment as chastisement will bring forth a righteous child who knows and loves God is open to serious debate. There is evidence to the contrary. Figures show that 31% of juvenile delinquents have been severely beaten by their parents, and another 64% have been injured by parental abuse. Virtually all convicts in San Quintin were victims of child abuse. (Dr. R. Bensel as quoted by Virginia Mollencott in "Evangelism, Patriarchy and the Abuse of Children", Radix, Vol 13, No. 4, Jan-Feb 1982).

What does corporal punishment teach a child? It teaches that a more powerful person has the right to physically hurt a less powerful person because the bigger, stronger person "loves" the weaker, smaller person. Physical suffering shrouded in love gives a very confusing message to a child. The child may learn that when he grows to be a bigger, stronger person, he will be able to inflict his anger and frustration on whomever may be weaker and smaller in his life -- especially in his family life -- and that this behavior is appropriate if he "loves" the person. This justification is frequently offered by adults who batter spouses or children: "I hit you because I love you and it's for your own good."

Let's be clear. Receiving physical blows from another, especially a family member, is not good for a child. Whether an open hand, a paddle, a switch or a baseball bat is used is insignificant. The act of striking another person -- especially a person who is powerless in the face of the blows -- is not healthy for the recipient. Inflicting blows may relieve temporarily the frustration and anger of the batterer. This may be perceived by the batterer as positive: he/she may feel better and more in control of the child whom they have hit. But temporary relief is gained at the expense of the child, who is likely to repeat the abuse as an adult. In this sense the sins of the father are visited on the children and the generational cycle of abuse continues.

New patterns of Christian discipline and parenting grounded in love, respect and acceptance of children are needed. Guidance was exerted by the kind and responsible shepherd whose rod was used to guide and protect his sheep, not beat them. The "rod" referred to in Psalm 23 comforts the people. This is the rod that should not be spared a child. When Christians or anybody else use religious beliefs to justify the brutalization of children, they must be challenged. The U.S. Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion but not the freedom to victimize a child. Child abuse is horrendous. Child abuse baptized in Christian faith is blasphemy. Those who offer this justification are like those described in 2 Timothy as arrogant, abusive, inhuman, reckless, "holding the form of religion but denying the power of it". (3:2-5). We who are people of faith must challenge those among us who, draped in religiosity, perpetuate the suffering of the children Jesus called to him that he might bless them.

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